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Blogging at NYTimes and The Hindu

I’m going to draw some parallels here between the The New York Times and The Hindu in the context of Times’s decision to shut or merge up to half of its blogs (Disclosure: I launched The Hindu Blogs in December 2012 and coordinated the network until May 2014). This is not about money-making, at least not directly, as much as about two newspapers faced with similar economic problems at vastly different scales confronting the challenges of multi-modal publishing. Times’ decision to move away from blogs, which was brought to wider attention when Green went offline in March 2013, is not to be confused with its rejection of blogging. In fact, it’s the opposite, as Andrew Beaujon wrote for Poynter:

Assistant Managing Editor Ian Fisher told Poynter in a phone call: “We’re going to continue to provide bloggy content with a more conversational tone,” he said. “We’re just not going to do them as much in standard reverse-chronological blogs.”

This is mixed news for blogs. The experimental quality in the early days of blogging – which blogs both fed and fed off – is what inspired many post formats to emerge over the years and compete with each other. This competition was intensified as more news-publishers came online and, sometime in the late 2000s, digital journalism knew it was time for itself to take shape. The blog may have been fluidly defined but its many mutations weren’t and they were able to take root – most recognizably in the form of Facebook, whose integrated support for a variety of publishing modes and forums made the fluidity of blogging look cumbersome.

The stage was set for blogs to die but in a very specific sense: It is the container that is dying. This is good for blogs because the styles and practices of blogging live on, just the name doesn’t. This isn’t only a conceptual but also a technical redefinition because what killed blogs is also what might keep the digital news-publishing industry alive. It’s called modularization.

The modular newsroom

While I was at The Hindu, I sometimes found it difficult to think like the reader because it was not easy to forget the production process. The CMS is necessarily convoluted because if it aspires to make the journalist’s life easier, it has to be ‘department’-agnostic: print, online, design and production have to work seamlessly on it, and each of those departments has a markedly distinguished workflow. There is that obvious downside of ponderousness but on such issues you have to take a side.

One reason Beaujon cites for Times’ decision is their blogs’ CMS’s reluctance to play along with the rest of the site’s (which recently received a big redesign). I can’t say the problem is very different at The Hindu. In either institution, the management’s call will be to focus the CMS on whichever product/department/service is making the biggest profits (assuming one of them does that by a large margin) – and blogs, despite often being the scene of “cool” content, are not prioritized. The Schulzbergers have already done this by choosing to focus on one product while, at The Hindu, Editor Malini Parthasarathy has in the last two months ramped up her commitment to its digital platform with the same urgency as could have been asked of Siddharth Varadarajan had he been around.

The reason I said the demise of the container was also technical because, in order to keep a department-agnostic CMS both lightweight and seamless (not to mention affordable), larger organizations must ensure they eliminate redundant tasks by, say, getting a “print” journalist to publish his/her story online as well. Second, the org. must also build a CMS focused on interoperability as much as intra-operability. Technically speaking, each department should be an island that communicates with another by exchanging information formatted in a particular way or according to some standards.

Fragmenting the news

This is similar to blogs because the fragmentation that helped make it popular is also what has helped establish its biggest competitors, like tumblelogs, Twitter, Snapchat, Pinterest, etc., and each of these modes in turn are inspiring new ways to tell stories. A more modularized newsroom in the same vein will be able to tell different kinds of stories and be more adaptive to change and shock, not to mention better positioned to serve the fragmenting news. Better yet, this will also give journalists the opportunity to develop unique workflows and ethos to deal specifically with their work. That’s one thing that doesn’t bode well for the unfortunate blogs at the Times: “reintegration” is always accompanied by some losses.

Through all of this, anyway, the good name of “news-site” might become lost but we mustn’t underestimate our readers to not be able to spot the news under any other name.

However, this is where the similarities between the two organizations do end because they operate in drastically different markets. While traffic on both sites mostly entered ‘sideways’, i.e. from a link shared on the social media or on the site homepage instead of from the blogs landing page, what it did for the site itself is different. For one, among the people The Hindu calls its audience, purchasing power is way lower, so the symmetry that the Times might enjoy in terms of ad rates in print and on the web is just almost-impossible to achieve in India. This makes the battle to optimize UX with income grittier within Indian publications. The quality of the news is also nothing to write home about, although there is reason to believe that is changing as it’s less shackled by infrastructural considerations. Consider Scroll.in or Homegrown.

These are, of course, nascent thoughts, the knee-jerk inspired by learning that the Times was shutting The Lede. But let’s not lament the passing of the blog, it was meant to happen. On the other hand, the blog’s ability to preserve its legacy by killing itself could have many lessons for the newsroom.